AFP PHOTO/Patrick Fort
By Patrick Fort
Oyem, Gabon’s fourth-largest city, has a police station, a local governor, a seat on the Bank of Central African States, and a courthouse with some rather particular rules.
Magistrate judge Sylvain Lendira insists on two important things: He will confiscate any mobile phone that rings during proceedings. And no one is allowed to cross their legs.
I duly uncross mine. In 20 years of covering dozens of court hearings, no one has asked me to uncross my legs before.
I’m in Oyem for the trial of the regional head, the prefect Olivier Bassiva. The 46-year-old official is accused of having sent poachers into the bush to catch some game for a reception that President Ali Bongo Ondimba was supposed to attend.
It’s not everyday you get to see a prefect on trial. When he was accused of poaching in a country with many protected species, I knew there’d be a good story.
But -- as is often the case in the courthouse -- I have to wait before the main event begins. The judge has about 30 other cases to plough through first: Assault, abuse, battery, destruction of property, libel, and so on.
The judge calls defendants up one by one, but in most cases they are a no-show. A litany of adjournments follows, with prosecutors told to send additional summonses.
The judge seems fair and takes pains to politely explain each case to all involved. One plaintiff is in court for a fourth time, having travelled 100 kilometres to get here. He pouts as he speaks to the judge.
“Sir! My adversary stayed in the village. He won’t come. He knows the hearing was for today... He never comes,” the man says.
The judge looks at the case file. There is no summons, and he can’t judge the case without hearing the two parties.
“Where do you live?” the judge asks.
“In the village,” the man replies.
“Near to Bitam (another town in the north).”
“Good, well we’ll summons you for the next roving hearing (the court regularly holds sessions in some large villages) It won’t be as far for you,” the judge says.
The room is air-conditioned. Behind the judge hangs a painting of the scales of justice and the Latin motto: “Auctoritate rationis sed non ratione auctoritatis.” Loosely translated that means: On the authority of reason, but not by reason of authority.
An immaculate green, yellow and blue flag of Gabon hangs from a window.
A mobile phone rings. It’s an old man’s. The judge groans: “That’s the last time. The next phone that rings will be confiscated.”
After a few deliberations, we finally get to the case I’m here to cover.
Regis Bibang, an officer with the department of forestry and water, tells his story. According to him, he had been on his way to inspect a sustainable logging concession in February. Such areas require foresters to protect biodiversity, so hunting is off limits except to local villagers.
He says he spotted a vehicle that seemed to be carrying “suspicious cargo,” and signalled for it to stop. The vehicle belonged to the prefect. In it, he found three mandrill monkeys and a duiker antelope -- two totally protected species -- as well as a toucan and three antelopes, which are partially protected.
AFP PHOTO/Jonas Moulenda
The poachers whipped out an order from the prefect's office. But Bibang wasn’t impressed. He confiscated the dead animals and refused to speak with Bassiva on the phone.
“They asked me to speak with their boss. I told them that he wasn’t my boss, and I told them to ask the prefect to come down,” Bibang says.
Bassiva, the prefect, arrived some time later. He was furious, Bibang said, then punched the forestry officer. Bassiva claims he had only slapped Bibang.
“He made me come from a long way away,” Bassiva said.
“He challenged my authority in front of people. I felt humiliated. I shouldn’t have. I apologise,” Bassiva added.
As I am taking notes, I unconsciously cross my legs. A rather imposing female bailiff walks over and kicks me.
“We do not cross legs here!” she says. She’s wearing a tank-top and is chewing the end of a toothpick.
Rufin Nkoulou, an attorney for the forest service, says Bassiva had acted like “king of the castle”.
Bibang filed a complaint the same day and the case followed its course. The two hunters were arrested in April, Bassiva in May.
The prosecutor Ulric Nzoundou says that arresting him was like trying to figure out “a Chinese puzzle” because he was in a position of authority, but investigators got there in the end.
AFP PHOTO/Patrick Fort
Since his accession to power in 2009, President Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of Omar Bongo, has emphasised a “Green Gabon” and painted himself as a defender of nature. Notably, he burned five tonnes of Ivory in June, a first in Central Africa.
AFP PHOTO/Wils Yanick Maniengui
Bassiva claims he was acting in the president’s best interests by trying to score some bushmeat.
“I misunderstood. I thought that under special circumstances, one could overlook the laws. … I thought, perhaps foolishly, that I could authorise hunting parties,” he says.
“Let’s ask the president of the republic if he wanted to eat bushmeat,” the prosecutor says ironically.
Bassiva lowers his head. A few seconds later, his lawyer Foumane makes a bombshell claim that has the packed court drawing gasps.
“The former president of our country (Omar Bongo), for the pleasure of (former French presidents) Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, would take a helicopter and shoot buffalo in the reserves, in zones that are totally protected! Everyone in Gabon knows it!”
The court gallery erupts with roars of approval.
Some shout: “Giscard! Giscard too!" a reference to Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who was French president from 1974-’81.
AFP PHOTO/Sylvie Briand
The judge tries to restore order, while denying the lawyer’s claims. But Foumane won’t let it go.
“Everyone knows it!” the lawyer shouts.
He even asks Bibang if he’d ever heard the anecdote. Embarrassed, he turns to his lawyer, who shakes his head.
The debate goes on for two hours. The prosecutor says he wants to make an example of Bassiva and that “even the authorities must be subject to the law.” He calls for an 18-month prison sentence for the the prefect and 12-month terms for the two hunters.
A phone rings. This time, a bailiff agent confiscates it, switches it off and puts it on the clerk’s table. The owner doesn’t say anything.
Then Nkoulou, the forest service lawyer, demands stiff financial penalties.
“Wildlife is a wealth in Gabon,” he says. “How can the community develop if the prefect is the first to ride roughshod over the laws?”
His client, Bibang, is asking for penalites of five million CFA francs (7,500 euros, $10,000) in damages -- a fortune here. The crowd shouts, some laugh.
“Aha! Now we know why he came,” a woman shouts.
At the same time, another court official politely asks me to uncross my legs.
It’s the defense’s turn. Foumane, Bassiva's lawyer, is brilliant. He’s saved all his best shots and accuses Bibang of having wanted to “share the meat” with the hunters and having faked some injuries.
“Ten sick days for a slap! The mind boggles!” he says.
He goes on to tell the court how poaching is widespread across Gabon, where bushmeat, often from protected species, is sold everywhere.
“Let’s look in the freezers! If you’re going to go after the hunters, you should have similar hearings every week,” Foumane says.
He asks for a penalty of less than 12 months so that his client doesn’t lose his status as a public official.
The verdict comes back on December 6. Bassiva, who had been in jail since May, is given a one-year sentence, with five months suspended, meaning he can walk free.
The two hunters are given 10 months in prison, with two months suspended. They too are free.
The jail where the men had served their time is located right next to the most famous restaurant in town: The White House.